By Julia Musto

An 80-year-old Berkeley man lost $38,000 after being the victim of a scam that originated in Canada, while a further $15,000 of his money that was also nearly stolen was returned to him last week after authorities intervened.

The octogenarian, who wishes to remain anonymous, was the victim of a fictitious Quebec-based telemarketing company, who contacted him to say he had won 7th prize in a sweepstakes.

The man was told that before he could collect the unspecified prize, he would have to send the caller a check covering prize taxes. As he later told Homeland Security Investigations agents and the Berkeley Police Department, the man immediately sent the caller a check for $38,000.

A few months later, the same individual contacted the man demanding another payment of $15,000, which the victim sent. This time the check was intercepted in Canada by investigators working for Project COLT (Center of Operations Linked to Telemarketing), a binational effort involving numerous agencies, including HSI, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and the Security and Investigation Services for Canada Post.

“I probably will never see the first check for $38,000 I sent to this guy, but I’m very grateful to have the $15,000 back,” the victim said. “There is much to the saying that, if something sounds too good to be true, it is too good to be true.”

The Berkeley Police Department returned the money personally to the victim, according to BPD spokesperson Sgt. May Kusmiss.

In a statement, HSI agents said the ploy used on the man is common in telemarking frauds. Callers will pose as anything ranging from relatives to government representatives, they said. The victims are told that they will receive a sum of money, or a reward, and the fraudulent telemarketers persist until they receive as much money as possible from the victims.

HSI said the most effective defense is for people to be suspicious of any individuals calling asking for money.

Canada-based organizations report that consumers have lost more than $280 million due to these types of telemarketing scams. Since it was formed in 1998, Project COLT has recovered almost $27 million following criminal investigations.

If you receive any such suspicious e-mails or phone calls, contact PHONEBUSTERS, Canada’s Anti-fraud Call Center, at 1-888-495-8501.

Julia Musto is a student at Head-Royce School and lives in Berkeley. She is senior editor on her school newspaper, “The Hawk’s Eye”, and will be studying journalism at New York University next fall. She is currently interning at Berkeleyside.

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5 Comments

  1. It’s sad that we can’t trust anyone we don’t know. And these cons are not only preying on people’s greed—promising big pay-outs—it also preys on our compassion. I know of several instances in which people believed that they were helping someone who was in dire circumstances. Elderly people living alone are particularly susceptible to these scams. All of us who know likely potential targets of these shady operations should make a point of warning those people. It only works because people respond.

    Good story, Julia!

  2. How sad. These kinds of scams have been around for a long time, and unfortunately the internet just makes it easier for crooks to find new ways to take your money.